Wednesday, February 13, 2008

On the Celebration of Darwin's Birthday

This year marks the 199th birthday of Charles Darwin, and the 149th since his seminal paper "On the Origin of Species" was published. Every year, on the anniversary of his birth, those of us who revel in the wonder that is science, especially in biology and evolutionary theory, celebrate this amazing man's birth. It must be understood that we're not deifying him, or placing him on some unreachable platform. We realize that he was a human being, just like every human being, with faults, and fears. His thoughts, of course, are archaic to us now, because even the most progressive individual of Darwin's time is considered racist in our current society. We can't fault a man for being wrong in certain ethical and moral ramifications when the social currents of his time were quite different then our own. Yet, he furthered our understanding of how nature created the vast diversity in species that we see in our world. Before Darwin, it was simple for many people to assume that species were created by a creator in their final form, yet, with Darwin's help, we now know that we don't have to inject a creator into explaining species diversity and forms. In fact, there is no such thing as a final form, or a static species, since we're constantly evolving anyway.

Not only was Darwin's discovery brilliant, but was further solidified with the isolation of the molecule in charge of genetic inheritance -- DNA. With DNA, we now had the proverbial smoking gun that allowed for random mutations and genetic changes within or genetic code. We could now follow and track the changes in the genes that resulted in such species diversity. By using molecular clocks, small fragments of certain genetic information that mutate at a known rate, we could date the approximate times that species diverged from each other. Coupled with the amazing new fossil discovery, an increase in understanding comparative anatomy, geological breakthroughs, radio-chemical tools, and other such data, we can correlate these scientific principles into a cohesive whole. Out of all this evidence, Darwin's idea has become irrefutable. When we say that Evolution is a theory, it must be understood that in science, a theory is a postulate that is backed up by evidence. In the case of Evolution through natural selection, we have a mountain of evidence to support it. Further, understanding evolution and natural selection has allowed us to probe deeper into unrelated fields like artificial intelligence and economic cycles. We now have a better understanding of a diversity of subjects because we can grasp the principles of natural selection.

In essence then, we can't fault a man for being far from perfect, because like all of us, Darwin had behaviors, characteristics, and personality traits that were less than ideal. However, we are not judging Darwin on his moral or ethical behavior, but on his scientific theory. He deserves the highly praised merit he constantly receives because his enlightening theory allowed the true study of biology to flourish. Before understanding such a deep and far reaching natural process, biologists were relegated to categorizing organisms based on appearance, whether anatomical or behavioral. As we slowly begin to fill the gaps in our understading of certain evolutionary traits, transitional fossils, and anatomical developments, we inch closer and closer to fully realizing our origins and place in the grand scheme of life on Earth. All does not begin and end with evolution however, because there are countless areas in the sciences that need to be further realized. For one, evolution does not explain how life started in the first place. There are many good theories, but no discrete evidence just yet. These, and other such unknowns are why science will always strive to fill gaps in our knowledge. We are a curious species, and the more of the natural world that we can uncover, the greater not only our understanding, but our ability to treat and cure the ills of society. These scientific principles are not just a selfish attempt at attaining knowledge but also a tool towards furthering out understanding and treatments of diseases, even helping to establish a more balanced environment such as reduction carbon emissions through modifying bacteria to fixate carbon and methane at a faster rate into harmless byproducts (perhaps even carbon containing waste that can be used to burn cleaner fuels).

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